For several decades Russia’s government has
been looking at possible options to develop a large
kyanite-rich area on the Kola Peninsula in the northern
Named Bolshie Keivy, meaning "big caves", the area contains
23 kyanite deposits with total estimated reserves of around
11bn tonnes, accounting for 90% of Russia’s
kyanite resources, making it the largest identified occurrence
of the mineral in the world.
As well as being an important refractory mineral, kyanite
also has the potential to be used as an alternative to bauxite
as a source of metallurgical alumina. This possibility has been
considered by Rusal, Russia’s leading and the
world’s second largest aluminium company, but the
profitability of developing Bolshie Keivy has for a long time
This situation may change over the next few years, however,
as a group of Russian scientists aim to demonstrate the
economic feasibility of substituting bauxite for kyanite in
The Russian government has indicated its support for the
project and in view of the bauxite deficit currently facing
Rusal, the chances that Bolshie Keivy may become
Russia’s next kyanite producer are looking
marginally more likely.
Russia holds the world’s largest
Demand for alternatives to bauxite
Russia ranks second in the world in terms of aluminium
production, with output of around 3.5-4m tpa, making up 12.5%
of the world total. Alumina, the main raw material for
aluminium making, is produced from bauxite, a rock ore
consisting of aluminum, iron and silicon oxides.
According to official Russian statistics, domestically
produced Russian bauxite accounts for around 45% of the
material consumed by the country’s aluminium
plants, meaning that more than half of Russia’s
bauxite needs are imported. The aluminium industry is deemed
strategically important for Russia and its reliance on foreign
bauxite supply has been repeatedly noted by the national
government, particularly in the context of the international
sanctions levied against Russia owing to its role in the
In 2014, the year in which Russia annexed the Ukrainian
territory of Crimea, Russian businesses feared the sanctions
would shut them off from the Society for Worldwide Interbank
Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), which would have created
significant problems for companies with assets and partner
Although this did not happen, these fears spurred calls to
establish more raw materials operations within Russian borders
to reduce future geopolitical risks to industry.
Russia has a lack of high quality bauxite deposits, most
being small and located at significant depths from the surface.
Given current weak prices for aluminium, there is little profit
to be made in exploring for new reserves.
One alternative could be to produce alumina from
Russia’s large reserves of nepheline, however
these ores have a low aluminium oxide content and would be
expensive to process.
Draft plans for Bolshie Keivey
Researchers from the Kola Scientific Institute of the
Russian Academy of Science recently unveiled provisional plans
for the construction of a kyanite mining and processing plant
at Bolshie Keivy.
"Kyanite contains more than 60% alumina, although today it
is mainly used for the production of refractory materials,"
explains Yuri Voytekhovsky, head of the Kola Scientific
"About 90% of Russian kyanite is concentrated in the Bolshie
Keivy mountain range. It consists of 23 mineralised fields with
ore reserves estimated at 966m tonnes, lying at depths of up to
100 metres. Overall reserves are thought to be around 11bn
tonnes. The accessibility of large quantities of mineralisation
at relatively shallow depths makes it possible to extract the
kyanite via open pit mining, which does not require large
expenditure, Voyekhovsky said.
The institute’s draft plans envisage building a
3.2m tpa capacity mining and processing plant to produce 1m tpa
kyanite concentrate. Of this, preliminary estimates indicate
that 650,000 tonnes could be used to make high-alumina
refractories, while the remaining 350,000 tonnes will be
suitable for aluminum alloys.
The full cost of implementing the project is expected to be
close to $2bn. The payback period will largely depend on market
prices, but is currently expected to be around 15 years. These
do not seem like attractive terms for investors, however Kola
Institute researchers point out that the largest part of the
capital expenditure required is for infrastructure and could be
significantly reduced with the help of government funding.
Located within the Arctic Circle, the Kola Peninsula is one
of the most northerly mainland territories in Russia and has
few roads or power links in addition to a harsh climate. But
the region also hosts deposits of more than 1,000 different
minerals, around 150 of which are not found anywhere else in
As well as kyanite, the peninsula has been found to contain
deposits of apatite-nepheline ore, iron, nickel, platinum group
metals, rare earths, lithium, titanium, garnet, ceramic
pegmatites, mica and vermiculite.
"Despite all the challenges [facing the development of
Kola’s mineral resources], the area does some have
logistical advantages," a spokesperson for the Kola Scientific
Institute noted. They pointed out that 70km away from Bolshie
Keivy on the Barents Sea coast lies the village of Gremikha
with an ice-free seaport, which would allow mineral
concentrates to be shipped to nearby Russian port cities, such
as Murmansk or Arkhangelsk.
"As for electricity, the solution could be the construction
of a thermal power plant running off natural gas," the
spokesperson added. "The government of the Murmansk Oblast is
planning to build a gas pipeline in the region, so if these
plans become reality, there would be no problems fuelling a
Proponents of the development of Bolshie Keivy also cite a
number of recent studies indicating that a mining operation in
the area could be designed to produce several minerals in
addition to kyanite, which would boost the profitability of the
"Kyanite ores from the Bolshie Keivy complex are composed of
minerals including selenium, ilmenite, staurolite and several
others," says Voytekhovsky. "Staurolite concentrate can be a
very valuable mineral. At least one Russian steel plant has
implemented a new steelmaking technology which uses staurolite,
rather than imported Mongolian fluorite, as a flux."
According to Julia Neradovskay, one of the Kola Scientific
Institute team working on the Bolshie Keivy proposals, the
institute is most interested in the possibility of producing
rare earths as byproducts of the kyanite operation. "If
we could extract rare earths concentrates as well, this would
increase the overall value of the ores for processed from the
complex," she said.
Despite the optimism of the Kola Institute researchers about
the future Bolshie Keivy, the project’s commercial
feasibility remains questionable.
"Unfortunately, representatives of scientific community and
manufacturers have different views on the development kyanite
deposits," says Oleg Kazanov, the chief geologist of the
Central-Kola expedition, which conducted the field study at
Bolshie Keivy. "Kyanite is undoubtedly of interest as a raw
material and Russia’s reserves of it are enormous.
But I believe that the development of Bolshie Keivy is unlikely
to begin in the next 20 years."
"First, the location of the deposits is too remote. Second,
at the moment there are no guaranteed customers for its output.
And third, primary aluminum producers currently have sufficient
alternative sources of bauxite from nepheline
"Roughly speaking, aluminium ores can be divided into two
types: oxide and silicate. Oxide ores include bauxite, which is
more profitable for processing. Processing silicate ores such
as kyanite is a very energy-intensive process and probably only
likely in the distant future. Aluminium manufacturers are not
ready make the substantial changes to their production
technology required to utilise kyanite," he added.
The lack of commercial interest in developing Bolshie Keivy
is further evidenced by the fact that the regional government
offered the mineral rights for sale by tender two years ago,
but no bids have yet been made.
"All in all, the benefits of Bolshie Keivy are also its weak
points," notes Alexei Pichugin, a representative of the
Murmansk Oblast government’s Department of
"A company wishing to launch the project will first need to
develop technology for complex processing of mineral ores. The
local resource base is unique and would require a tailored
flowsheet design. Assuming a suitable processing route is
developed, the company would then have to find potential
customers for its products, which is the really big
Even those who believe that developing Bolshie Keivy is a
realistic possibility admit that, in the current market
conditions, the only potential investor with the resources to
see the project through is Rusal. But Rusal, currently battling
low aluminium prices and looking to cut costs, is unlikely to
consider investing in such a scheme in the near future.
In mid-2013, Rusal suspended operations at its Volgogradsky,
Uralsky, Bogoslovksy and Nadvoitsky aluminium plants in
response to low aluminium prices.
The company has indicated that aluminium prices are almost
$1,000/tonne below the $2,400/tonne level needed to make these
facilities pay, so it seems certain that Rusal will not
consider switching to use the more costly kyanite as a raw
material until prices have recovered.
"Potentially, the development of [Bolshie Keivy] could be
attractive," commented a company source. "We need to conduct
large-scale studies prior to making any decisions, and if we
did decide to proceed, it would not happen before 2018, when we
expect world prices for aluminium to have returned to more
comfortable levels," they added.
"Today, when the most companies in the natural resource
sector are fighting for each dollar they can get it is hard to
imagine that we will go for such big project," they added.
"The arguments about the need for the company to transfer to
domestic raw materials are persuasive, but today it is
definitely not the best time for such activities."